Malachy O'Rourke: the manager and man revered wherever he goes
Eighteen years after he guided The Loup to the unlikeliest of Ulster Club titles, Malachy O'Rourke reluctantly goes up against the loughshore club as they meet his new charges Glen in the Derry SFC semi-final. Yet as Cahair O'Kane discovers, there is nothing but reverence for him everywhere he's been…
WHEN Aideen McFlynn would answer the house phone and find it was Malachy O'Rourke looking for her husband, it was never a swift handover.
'How are you? How's school going?' he would enquire.
Almost as quick as he'd learned the names of his players, he'd learned the names of their wives and girlfriends as well.
"All the girlfriends and wives loved Malachy. And then if he was taking you away on a training weekend, there wasn't much said," smiles Paul McFlynn.
"That was the personal touch that he had. He knew peoples' names. Simple things."
Budding managers will perhaps read that and make a note, that the way to keep a football team happy around the field is to ensure they're happy around home.
But there was no gimmick with O'Rourke. It wasn't a game, it wasn't about getting onside. It's simply his nature as a man.
O'Rourke is now in charge of Glen, seeking to guide them to a first ever Derry senior football championship.
If he manages it, the reverence with which he'll be held in Maghera might come close to that with which he's held in The Loup, up against whom he'll go this weekend.
He's been 16 years removed from Derry club football, a time long enough to usher in a mobile phone generation but not quite enough to avoid a reunion of sorts.
Twins Colm and Dominic McVey, their cousin Paul, Aidan McAlynn, Paul Young and Gavin Mallon will all be in The Loup squad on Sunday that will go up against O'Rourke having played under him at some point of his three-year reign on the loughshore.
But where many past managers can be reviled when they stand in the opposing dugout, he is revered by the club that he guided not only to a first Derry title in almost 70 years, but an unfathomable Ulster crown.
That was really the beginning for Malachy O'Rourke. He'd been living in Ballygawley since 1992 and would win a county title with Errigal Ciaran in 2006 under Marty McElkennon.
It was McElkennon who played Cupid when The Loup turned right into March 2003 without a new manager appointed. He had been in along with Patsy Forbes the previous year as they won their first ever senior league and reached the county final, but the Ardboe man had made it clear from the start that it was a one-year thing.
McFlynn was captain and his father Bernard was chairman. They took a selection of players to The Gables restaurant just outside Dungannon, where O'Rourke and Leo McBride were there to meet them at McElkennon's direction.
The marriage was quickly arranged. The players had the right answers and were discerning enough to recognise the men facing them had the right questions.
O'Rourke's coaching began in St Joseph's Enniskillen, where he is still the PE teacher. He fell in with Leo McBride around Ballygawley and took off for Tyholland, whom they guided into senior football in Monaghan for the first time in their history.
The Loup were taking a bit of a punt but McElkennon, so well regarded around the place himself, was sure they were a good fit.
One of the first nights they were together, O'Rourke produced a small laminated card for each player. One side was covered head-to-toe in the word 'TEAM'. Flip it over and in text barely legible to the human eye, the word 'ME'.
"It sounds so simple, but he said you're just that small part of what we're trying to do here, you're only one individual that's part of the group," said McFlynn.
"I don't have mine but I know certain boys around the Loup, boys you wouldn't expect, that still have that card, that kept it.
"He told us to put it somewhere you'd put it every day, be it your wallet, your office desk, your bedroom at home, wherever, and look at it as a daily reminder.
That story resonates with Dessie Mone as he reaches for his kitbag. The Clontibret man was one of Monaghan's most trusted defensive lieutenants during O'Rourke's seven-year reign that brought two Ulster titles to a county that hadn't won one for 25 years.
Everywhere Mone has carried his kitbag for years, he's carried a small laminated card given to the Monaghan players by their manager.
"It has a Zulu war cry on it, the one done by the whole of South Africa before the [rugby] World Cup final.
"I have it in my hand here now."
Niya besaba na? (Are you afraid of them?)
Hayi! Asiba sabi! (No! We are not afraid!)
Siya bafuna! (We want them!)]
O'Rourke's ability to inspire could appear curious to those that don't know him.
Study his manner in front of a TV camera or on the line at a match, it's a stoic, relaxed, unflustered way of being.
That's his default setting. And sure, like any manager, there are times when he could push the decibel levels up.
But his methods were different from blood-and-thunder. O'Rourke loves to read. A sponge for detail and for information, he's able to bring something new to training sessions and to meetings all the time.
"I remember in the earlier days, if he had a point to get across, he'd pull boys into the huddle and in a very gentle way he might have a bit of a parable," says Vinny Corey, another key defensive lynchpin from Monaghan's golden generation.
"It could have been about anything – it could have been about a farmer, it could have been about a frog! There would always have been a wee laugh in it, but the point was got across, you always knew the point he was making."
Dessie Mone's favourite was when he likened the men in front of him to the thick-set Honey Badger, known for getting itself out of tight spots.
"We would have felt like we were backed into a corner with the media, that we were never getting the credit due for our football ability.
"Mal would talk about the Honey Badger, being backed into the corner. That was a great one.
"And you wouldn't be leaving the meetings tensed up, you'd be focussed and fired-up but it'd be a relaxed calm before the storm."
When Limerick hurlers added a symbol to the back of their jerseys in 2020, the mystique factor grew around a brilliant team. They weren't the first to do it and they won't be the last.
But if anything sums Malachy O'Rourke up, it's that for all of his seven years in Monaghan, they had a team motto.
The players carried it every day they went out but it remains so discreet that neither Vinny Corey nor Dessie Mone will lift the lid, even after he's gone.
"It was in a very discreet place and always visible to us, but not visible to anyone else. It was very effective," says Corey.
"I wouldn't want to say it because I don't think it's ever been said and I'm not gonna be the one to say it. It wasn't like what The Loup boys had but it was a very powerful message and something we always drew from."
* * * * *
THE art of management is sometimes not the what, but the when.
When The Loup won the 2003 Derry title, they drank Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. When they arrived for training on Wednesday night, the John McLaughlin Cup was sitting on a table in the middle of the changing room.
By the time they came back into it after the session, there was nobody looking about a cup.
"There was this real buzz, nearly disbelief that this happened around the club, supporters out watching training," says McFlynn.
"We went out thinking it'd be a run-of-the-mill session. It was an absolute guttin' match. An absolute killin' session that boys could barely walk or talk after it. There were boys vomiting over the wire in the top corner.
"We'd never done that kind of training with them. It was a case of 'that's done, let's get ready for Bryansford' and it just went from there. That was the Wednesday, we trained Friday and Sunday. It was back to reality and working hard."
O'Rourke pulled his teams together with his good nature and retains great friendships wherever he's been, but always knew what distance to keep too.
When they won those titles, he didn't take a beer after one and drank two bottles of Miller before departing from the other. When Monaghan won Ulster, he stayed long enough to pass himself, telling the players it was their night, not his.
In three years in The Loup, he was only ever in the changing room on match days. He never set foot inside it at training sessions, pulling his boots on at the back of the car and going straight on to the pitch.
In Cloghan, he and his management team had their own changing room.
For a man who has won everywhere he's gone, it would be hard to rank his achievements but taking The Loup to an Ulster Club title would at the very least be swimming with the big fish.
Bryansford dispatched, they had the self-belief to go as first-time county champions and beat Crossmaglen and then St Gall's.
"He has an unbelievable ability to motivate ye, make you believe in yourself and make the group believe," says McFlynn.
"It's not a one-off, it's not two or three powerful speeches. It's a slow, drip-feed process of belief that he instils within you. It's hard to put it into context.
"My wife will say to me 'all hail Malachy'. Any time his name's brought up, I'm at a wedding or in a conversation, she'll say 'ah Jesus, don't mention his name' because I'm away off gushing.
"That wouldn't just be me, that would be across the team. If Johnny [McBride] was talking about him or Paul Young or our Shane or Finty Devlin, everybody speaks of him with the same reverence."
They didn't win another county title in his second or third year but McFlynn still puts their 2005 semi-final win over Ballinderry in a basket with the club's best ever.
"Ballinderry beat us in the league up in The Loup by 27 points one Sunday evening. It was a humiliation. Eight weeks later, we beat them in a championship semi-final by three points."
A clear-the-air meeting, some introspective thinking on all sides and a return to basics settled things down.
They were playing Kilrea in a league game a fortnight before the semi-final and went out for dinner and bowling in Ballymena afterwards.
"You're getting off the bus that night and he reached us a sheet. On the sheet was a number of powerful quotes, but it was how he used the quotes to effect, to relate them to us. They were quotes about adversity and what we were facing.
"I remember getting off the bus that night in The Loup and the hairs standing on the back of my neck, you wanted the game to be played there and then.
"That ability to do that, I don't think there's anyone else could have turned that around in the space of eight weeks and have us believe we could go out and win it.
"I'd always have compared him to Eamonn Coleman. Eamonn was a psychologist, whether he knew it or not. Malachy's very similar in his ability to motivate you.
"I mind chatting to him after he left and he would have said the two most important words in management are 'well done', the Alex Ferguson mantra.
"He was really good at building on that positive and building boys up, but at the same time being realistic. If you had a bad game or things weren't going well, you knew about it, but in a nice way."
There won't be a bad word spoken in his direction by anyone from The Loup on Sunday. They will want to stop his latest crusade for silverware, but they think far too much of him to ever make it about beating him.
Through it all, he has delegated to Leo McBride and Ryan Porter in particular, two men without whom he would admit that he would have had no success.
Others that have been in that environment would all say the same, that the quality of the men he surrounded himself with was central to a managerial career that seems destined to return to inter-county football at some point.
Not going straight back in with another county was a tip of the cap to the Monaghan players he'd been with for seven years, and one that only improved his standing with a group that already thought the world of him.
He'd make a point of being at the wakes he needs to be at in The Loup.
He and Leo McBride were down on the pitch after coming up to watch the 2009 final in which they secured the coveted second county title they felt they'd left behind by losing to Bellaghy in '05.
In Glen, they already adore him. The players think so much of him and the wives do too.
And there dotted through the Owenbeg crowd on Sunday will be some of his former Monaghan players, whose affinity for him is such that they're planning to get into their cars and make the journey up to see how he's getting on.
Malachy O'Rourke the manager is respected in every corner of Ireland.
Malachy O'Rourke the man? Few are better thought of.